Josh Wolf is out of the clink, but the debate about why he was freed continues
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Freelance journalist and blogger Josh Wolf has been free for more than a week, but the debate over why the federal government released him after 226 days in jail is only getting murkier.
First a US Attorney's Office press release April 3 claimed that Wolf "complied with the grand jury subpoena." Next a San Francisco Chronicle headline April 4 declared, "Blogger Freed after Giving Up Video." Then a Chronicle op-ed April 9 by the California First Amendment Coalition's executive director, Peter Scheer, claimed Wolf's case never should have become a constitutional cause célèbre "because he never had evidence."
"In retrospect," Scheer wrote, "Wolf's jailing looks like a huge misunderstanding, in which prosecutors assumed, incorrectly, that Wolf possessed relevant evidence, while Wolf believed, erroneously, that he had a responsibility to go to jail even if he had no relevant evidence."
Wolf disagrees with all the above, beginning with the prosecutor's claim that he complied with the subpoena.
"If I complied, then journalists will be happy to know that the meaning of 'complied' has changed," Wolf said, noting that he never capitulated to the feds' demands that he testify under oath before a grand jury about a July 2005 Mission District protest that turned violent, parts of which he captured on video and excerpts of which were aired shortly thereafter on national television.
Wolf was more forgiving of the Chron's misleading headline because, as he put it, "headline writers don't write the story, and the story itself was accurate." That said, the truth, according to Wolf, is that only after the feds gave up their demand that he testify did he agree to post his unedited video.
It's a subtle distinction that was missing from some coverage of his release from federal prison, but it's a significant omission that makes Wolf's decision look like a coerced surrender. Wolf emphasized, "The subpoena demanded I give up my video and testify before a grand jury."
As for Scheer's argument that Wolf shouldn't have gone to prison for nothing, Wolfe said it misses the crucial point: complying with a federal subpoena hurts a journalist's standing with sources.
"You can't decide to only protect material if it's of evidentiary value. And Scheer sidestepped the issue of testimony and the fact that the government agreed to not make me testify before a grand jury," Wolf told us.
The problem with grand juries, at least from a journalistic perspective, is that their inquisitional power is unlimited and their proceedings are secret. In other words, journalists can be suspected of snitching yet can't prove they haven't, all of which adds up to the kiss of death for reporters who cultivate the trust of confidential sources.
Wolf said he offered to give up his tape but did not offer to testify about it, as early as November 2006, but the feds rejected the latter part of his demand. Once they did agree in April that he wouldn't have to testify about the tape's contents, Wolf said there was no longer any point in refusing to release the tape itself.
Releasing the tape, Wolf said, helped put to rest the "suspicion that I had any relevant evidence."
"Sure, Josh had developed sources in the anarchist community, but that's not what this was about," Wolf attorney James Wheaton told us. "It was about refusing to appear before the grand jury and testify or name names."
With a parallel debate raging about whether bloggers are journalists, Wolf said he hopes people will give him the benefit of the doubt and say he should have been protected.
"I believe my action served to be the strongest case for the need for a federal shield law," Wolf said. Local officials agree.
"What happened to Mr. Wolf is stark evidence that we need a federal shield law to make sure this does not happen again," District Attorney Kamala Harris said April 3.
Harris's support for Wolf also highlights questions about the role San Francisco police officials played in this mess.
As part of the settlement that secured his release, Wolf answered no to two questions: did he see anybody throw anything at the squad car that was part of an alleged arson, and did he see whom SFPD officer Peter Shields was chasing before his skull got fractured?
"Answering questions about which you know nothing is not a violation of journalistic ethics," Wheaton told the Guardian. "But those same questions prove that law enforcement misused the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which was set up to investigate terrorism but which they used to get around California's shield laws."
Public records show that the SFPD requested the help of the JTTF and the FBI to investigate the assault on Shields. That assault should be under the jurisdiction of the DA's Office. But by framing the case as an alleged arson to a car, for which the department received some funds courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security, law enforcement was able to federalize the investigation.
With Wolf's unedited video showing one police officer wildly pointing his gun at protesters in apparent violation of the SFPD's general orders, questions remain as to who will hold law enforcement accountable for what's on this long-disputed tape. *